Although its claim to be as the first detective story in the English language is often disputed by Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue (published more than 25 years earlier), The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins is certainly the first full-length novel where a detective systematically examines clues and follows leads. It has been praised by TS Eliot, admired by Dorothy Sayers and it has certainly influenced Arthur Conan Doyle, PD James, Ruth Rendell and others. It’s a true classic – but is this 1868 book more talked about than read in the present day? Does it still bear reading in a world which has so many more accomplished modern tales of detection?
The Moonstone of the title is a large yellow diamond sacred to Hindus living under the British Raj. It has been acquired in rather brutal circumstances by British Army officer John Herncastle. Rachel Verinder inherits this diamond from her uncle on her 18th birthday. However, many believe that the gemstone is cursed and their fears seem justified when the diamond disappears from a locked cupboard in Rachel’s bedroom. The famed and authoritative Sergeant Cuff is brought in to find the thief and the precious stone. However, it will take more than a year and several narrators to discover the truth.
Wilkie Collins was the first author to use many story devices which have since become standard in detective stories. They include the country house setting, the locked-room mystery, a large cast of potential suspects, a famous and eccentric detective sent to compensate for the bungling local cop, numerous red herrings, a seemingly impossible situation, and a reconstruction of the crime. He combines all of these elements with a love for theatrical surprises, melodrama, gothic descriptions and plenty of plot twists. And so the Victorian genre of the ‘sensation novel’ was born.
Read it fast
It is still a page-turner today, even though our attention spans have shortened and the crime committed is merely theft, rather than murder. It’s a book which demands to be read quite quickly, especially since there are so many small details to remember. The well-versed modern reader of crime will know that each detail could be important and there is plenty of foreshadowing of that. However, red herrings are also liberally sprinkled throughout the story, and Collins keeps you on your toes.
One of the most interesting literary devices employed by Wilkie Collins is the handing of the baton from one narrator to another. Not only does each character’s partial and biased point of view add to the complexity of the story, but each witness statement is hugely revealing of character, from the faithful and fussy older servant Gabriel Betteridge to the incorrigibly sanctimonious Miss Clack. This stylistic device seems to be gaining in popularity once more, and many psychological thrillers of recent years rely on the interplay of two or three narrative voices. Collins is more ambitious, with no less than six narrators, and he manages to keep their voices distinct and instantly recognisable.
One of the things that will strike when you re-read The Moonstone is how progressive it is regarding social attitudes. Rachel Verinder is an heiress with a mind of her own and her mother has no qualms in disagreeing with Sergeant Cuff on occasion. Rosanna Spearman, a servant girl with the crooked shoulder and dodgy past, is presented with great compassion, and the author condemns the other servants’ snobbish attitude towards her. The forlorn and lonely doctor addicted to opium is one of the nicest characters in the book. The description of the moonstone in its Indian setting and its forcible acquisition is critical of colonial plundering. Finally, through Miss Clack and the philanthropist Godfrey Ablewhite, and their preposterously named charity Mothers’ Small Clothes Conversion Society, Collins pokes fun at religious hypocrisy as well.
The novel has been filmed and adapted in all sorts of ways. The best film version you’re likely to see is the 1934 American production directed by Reginald Baker, even though budget constraints meant that large parts of the story were left out. In1959, the BBC adapted it for television, and in 1972 there was a remake. Many fans are happy with the 1996 production done by the BBC, Carlton Television and the US channel WGBH, though there are some significant changes to the story. There has also been a computer game for Mac and PC based on the book. Mystery Masterpiece: The Moonstone is more of a hidden object game and although it has some mystery elements to it, again the original premise is stretched.
Perhaps this will finally be the year of an adaptation worthy of the original. A full five years after it was first commissioned by the BBC, a new five-part daytime drama series is scheduled for later this year as part of the Love to Read season. Details are sparse, but we do know that John Thomson will play the legendary Sergeant Cuff and Sarah Hadland plays Miss Clack. We don’t know when it will be broadcast, but when it is it will be over five consecutive days, during the daytime. Filming began in Yorkshire in July 2016.
Classics in September 2016 is sponsored by Bloomsbury Reader.
Thanks for sending me to this review Marina. I love all the antecedents of crime fiction and will make a note of the screen adaptations you mention. I’m still trying to get round to reading Caleb Williams by William Godwin…